Monday, July 6, 2015

A Brief Treatise on the Rules of Thrones 2.07: A Man Without Honor

State of Play

The choir goes off. The board is laid out thusly.

Lions of King’s Landing: Tyrion Lannister, Cersei Lannister
The Lion, Jaime Lannister
The Direwolf, Catelyn Stark
Dragons of Qarth: Daenerys Targaryen
Bears of Qarth: Jorah Mormont
Direwolves of the Wall: Jon Snow
Lions of Harrenhal: Tywin Lannister
Direwolves of Winterfell: Brandon Stark
The Direwolf, Robb Stark
Direwolves of King’s Landing: Sansa Stark
Direwolves of Harrenhal: Arya Stark
Kraken of Winterfell: Theon Greyjoy
Flowers of King’s Landing: Shae
Dogs of King’s Landing: Sandor Clegane

The episode is in seventeen parts. The first is three minutes long and is set in Winterfell. The opening image is Theon in bed.

The second is three minutes long and is set north of the Wall. The transition is by family, from Bran and Rickon to Jon Snow. 

The third is six minutes long and is set in Harrenhal. The transition is by image, from Ygritte as a prisoner to a man hanging.

The fourth is one minute long and is set in King’s Landing. The transition is by family, from Arya to Sansa Stark.

The fifth is one minute long and is set in Qarth. The transition is by hard cut, from a close-up of the Hound to Daenerys walking through Qarth.

The sixth is two minutes long and is set north of the Wall. The transition is by family, from Daenerys Targaryen to Jon Snow, who knows nothing.

The seventh is three minutes long and is set in the Stark camp in the Riverlands. The transition is by family, from Jon Snow to Robb Stark. 

The eighth is two minutes long and is set in Winterfell. The transition is by family, form Robb Stark to Bran, in abesntia. 

The ninth is two minutes long and is set in Qarth. The transition is by hard cut, from Maester Luwin being led away to Daenerys and her empty cages.

The tenth is three minutes long and is set north of the Wall. The transition is by family, from Daenerys Targaryen to Jon Snow. 

The eleventh is five minutes long and is set in King’s Landing. The transition is by family, from Jon Snow to Sansa Stark. 

The twelfth is six minutes long and is set in the Stark camp in the Riverlands. The transition is by family, from Cersei to Jaime Lannister. It features the death of Alton Lannister and Torrhen Karstark, killed by Jaime Lannister. 

The thirteenth is four minutes long and is set in Qarth. The transition is by image, from Jaime Lannister’s carnage to Quaithe’s. It features the death of most of the ruling council of Qarth. 

The fourteenth is two minutes long and is set in the Stark camp in the Riverlands. The transition is by hard cut, from Pyat Phree to a Stark banner serving as establishing shot.

The fifteenth is three minutes long and is set in King’s Landing. The transition is by family, from Jaime to Cersei and Tyrion Lannister, and by dialogue, with Tyrion’s message mentioning Tarth. 

The sixteenth is four minutes long and is set in the Stark camp in the Riverlands. The transition is by family, from Tyrion and Cersei to Jaime Lannister. 

The seventeenth is seconds long and is set in Winterfell. The transition is seemingly by family, from Catelyn to Bran Stark. The final image is of Theon, realizing that the correct answer to his riddle was not, in fact, “hang the remains of two burnt children on the ramparts of Winterfell,” but rather “chess.” 


The title, of course, refers to the Kingslayer, Jaime Lannister, making his first appearance in six episodes. This is by some margin the longest period of absence of one of the initial main characters in the entire history of play. In the context of a seventeen-part episode, the six minute segment that is basically a two-hander in which he manipulate his cellmate and then murders him borders on outright decadence. The only other characters to get a scene that long are Arya and Tywin, and it’s the only scene for those characters in the entire episode. (It is, of course, brilliant, with Arya’s “most girls are stupid” and Tywin’s wary enjoyment of her being, as usual, a highlight.) Jaime, on the other hand, gets another four minute scene towards the end, and another two minute scene in between in which he’s a secondary character. Which is to say, he has both the longest single scene and the most screen time in the episode. 

But this takes place in an episode consciously framed by Theon in his pursuit of Bran and Rickon. And although the title drop goes to Jaime (or, rather, Catelyn talking about Jaime), it must be said, it applies just as well to Theon, whose reckless selfishness careens him progressively towards disaster even in the form of seeming victories. It’s not even that he makes any decisions that are strategically unwise as such. As he points out, the stakes for him if he loses Bran and Rickon are significant. Thus far at least his only real error in terms of taking Winterfell is simply the fact that he should have sacked the castle and left instead of trying to hold it, as will be pointed out shortly. In other words, ironically, it is the presence of honor that dooms Theon, a point tacitly raised by Jaime as he casually deconstructs the underlying notion.

Framed like this, the rest of the episode ripples outwards. Jon Snow and Ygritte provide a dialectical discussion of freedom in which the synthesis is a bunch of angry Wildlings with swords, but where Jon’s position is one of honor. The ongoing Robb/Talia plot is similarly focused. And, of course, Jorah, who gets the biggest practical moment of honor in the episode as he manages to find a way to serve his Khaleesi, but who has this juxtaposed with Quaithe’s reminder of his disloyalty. (Left relatively unclear in the show, but eventually explicit in the books is the fact that Jorah sent another report to Varys while absent last episode. It would appear the show at least intended to follow this, since Varys has gotten word of Daenerys’s dragons next episode, but when Jorah’s treachery is eventually revealed the dispatch from Qarth is not mentioned, whereas in the books it is one of the factors in Daenerys’s decision to exile him.) 

Qarth also marks the moment when the theme that has governed this stretch of play is finally made explicit, with Xaro Xohan Daxos bluntly saying, “Those on the margins often come to control the center.” Qarth’s strange mixture of genuine magic (in the form of Pyat Pree and Quaithe) and a stiffly artificial pastiche of the game has been building up to being used as a metonymy for the larger board for a while, and here it finally becomes so. What’s particularly interesting about Qarth, however, is that it exists completely outside the dualism that otherwise defines the board. The House of the Undying is not straightforwardly allied with light or dark, fire or ice, life or death. Nor is Quaithe. The former’s magic is dismissed as the work of a charlatan even within its society; the latter is unseen and exists in the shadows, seemingly related to a level of carnality (implied by the transition into Quaithe’s scene). It would appear to be entirely marginal. Which is to say, it would appear to be entirely dangerous. 

Saturday, July 4, 2015

All The Mirrors of the World

Having carefully built the storytelling machine that is Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell over three episodes, Harness and Haynes here start to explore some of the less obvious things that it can do. The result is yet another step up for the series. 

Two sequences strike me as particularly highlighting this sense of a show that is reveling in the basic fact of its own flexibility. The first are the sequences involving Lady Pole under the care of John Secundus and Mr. Honeyfoot, which juxtapose the acutely brutal portrayal of Lady Pole’s suffering with the awkward comedy of Secundus and Honeyfoot. A highlight is the scene where Secundus awkwardly escorts Stephen out of Lady Pole’s room and closes the door, leaning against it with a pained and awkward expression on his face. It’s set up and played as a gag - part and parcel of Secundus’s general cheery ineptitude. Edward Hogg gives a beleaguered sigh of “well that’s over with” as he leans against the door. It’s funny. As is the awkward question about how much experience they actually have in running an asylum. And then, from behind the door, comes Lady Pole’s anguished scream, completely and utterly unfunny.

It’s an impressive juxtaposition, paid off well when Secundus and Honeyfoot prove themselves to be genuinely invested in helping Lady Pole by fending off Childermass. But the reason it works is that both Lady Pole and the Secundus/Honeyfoot double act have been well established by the series. (Indeed, the entire sequence in “The Education of a Magician” in which Childermass randomly shows up to forbid the two from opening a school of magic is basically the setup for a gag in which the punchline is “so instead they run an asylum.”) And because they’ve been kept relatively separate, they’ve been allowed to develop their own narrative gravity, which is then spectacularly maintained as they cross paths. 

In many ways even more jaw-dropping is the sequence of scenes when Jonathan Strange finally goes through the mirror out onto the King’s Roads. First of all, these are just a lovely bit of visual weirdness, and the image of Jonathan Strange, dressed the perfect Romantic, striding up the stone staircase, strewn with moss and withered vines, up to the impossible vista is simply a perfect image that captures everything that the show promises. (Also lovely, the small callback to Strange and Norrell’s first meeting as Norrell looks briefly into the mirror early on, the document Strange sent through it still hanging suspended within.)

But equally great is the way in which the show transitions in and out of this. The cut into it, from Strange confronting his supposed student during the billiards game, is obvious enough, and what the King’s Road intro needed. The transition into Faerie has to be jarring. That’s the point. What didn’t have to happen, and what is thus brilliant for happening, is the transition out of Faerie into the confrontation with Drawlight, including the wonderfully ridiculous list of vendettas handed to Strange. To juxtapose the pettily mundane with Faerie as a way into an eccentric and magical space is standard. To have Strange then thunder back out of the mirror to confront a hilariously spiteful old woman and a conniving fraudster, however, is thoroughly unexpected, and a demonstration of the complexity of what this show can do.

Other highlights abound, however, in what really is an absolutely masterful hour of television. The sequence with Strange and King George is wonderful, with the decision not to actually put Marc Warren in the scene and to play it entirely from Strange’s perspective giving it a truly unsettling tinge. (Also great, Cavell’s reaction to the king vanishing, which is perfectly understated.) And the final confrontation between Norrell and Strange, where Norrell finally makes a desperate attempt at compromise (which Strange, touchingly, notes the significance of even as he declines it) is fantastically done. 

Indeed, given this scene, it’s worth revisiting the nature of the Strange/Norrell dualism, which started as a simple chaos/order dichotomy in the classic sense, but has by now evolved into something altogether more complex, not least because of the way in which it connects tacitly with the relationship between faerie and the marginal. Norrell’s position - which the narrative has at this point made aggressively unsympathetic (Marsan’s herculean task in maintaining the least bit of sympathy for his character this episode comes in the scenes at Childermass’s bedside) - is rapidly becoming understandable as a stand-in for both the Enlightenment and Victorian projects that the story is carefully set between, with the modernizing urge to bulldoze the past and create an entirely new structure being inextricable from the way in which this also bulldozes oppressed populations.

Strange’s position, on the other hand, is firmly a Romanticist one. At this point in the narrative it is tempting to call it sympathetic - certainly Strange has been the protagonist of the last two episodes where Norrell has been the antagonist, at least in a structural sense - but there’s an acute sense that this is being set up to subsequently be knocked down. Strange may be the sympathetic figure, after all, but the episode takes pains to show the degree to which his romanticism is entirely useless. He continues not to poke at the matter of Lady Pole, for instance, and the audience is put on Arabella’s side when she calls him out on his desire to explore the King’s Roads. It is, ultimately, being set up as a sort of sympathetic egotism - he is, in the end, conceived of in terms of his greatness, a decidedly dangerous concept in a story so invested in the plight of the little people.

So all in all, a fantastic episode of television that finds new things to do with its premise while continuing to hone a thorough and insightful critique of the usual rhetoric of fantasy. Basically, this is the Evil of the Daleks of our age.


  1. All the Mirrors of the World
  2. The Education of a Magician
  3. How is Lady Pole?
  4. The Friends of English Magic

Friday, July 3, 2015

All Known and Unknown Things (The Last War in Albion Part 103: The Not-End of Halo Jones)

This is the fourth of five parts of The Last War in Albion Chapter Eleven, focusing on Alan Moore's The Ballad of Halo Jones. An omnibus of all five parts is available on Smashwords. If you are a Kickstarter backer or a Patreon backer at $2 or higher per week, instructions on how to get your complimentary copy have been sent to you.

The Ballad of Halo Jones is available in a collected edition that can be purchased in the US or in the UK.

Previously in The Last War in Albion: The third book of The Ballad of Halo Jones offered a portrayal of futuristic war grounded in the psychological horrors war inflicts on its combatants. 

"First, there is Brahma, the self-aware immensity, from whose thought-substance are created all known and unknown things." -Grant Morrison, 18 Days

It’s a shocking portrayal of post-traumatic stress, grounded in the same brutal social realism that saw Mills depicting Charley Bourne on the dole in 1933, and, for that matter, in a Britain where Thatcher’s had only recently gone to war with Argentina for some obscure islands as crushing unemployment sparked riots at home.

Figure 815: Halo Jones slowly drinks herself to death. (Written by Alan
Moore, art by Ian Gibson, from The Ballad of Halo Jones Book Three
in 2000 AD #451, 1986)
This parallel is, of course, in no way incidental. The Ballad of Halo Jones was, from the beginning, rooted in social commentary on Thatcher’s Britain. This was in many ways the point, the satirical tradition of 2000 AD being one of the things that endeared it to Moore in spite of the numerous frustrations. The Hoop was just another variation on the terraces of Moore’s childhood: a place built for poor people to die in with as little fuss as possible for the rest of the world. The callous disregard for the safety or well-being of its residents and the cruel farce that there might be any jobs for them anyway was, as with the best strips in 2000 AD, and indeed the best science fiction, nothing more or less than Moore looking outside his own window and describing what he saw from an oblique angle, an approach perfectly suited to Gibson’s brilliantly grotesque blend of realism and cartooning. And the focus on the economic realities continues to be at the heart of the strip in Book Three, which uses its prologue chapter to depict Halo’s decade-long downward spiral after leaving the Clara Pandy as a vicious cycle of unemployment and claustrophobia slowly leads her to a life of petty crime and alcoholism. It’s in this context that Halo’s enlistment in the military is shown, making it clear that this is an act of desperation - the only way out of the galaxy that Halo can find. In this regard, notably, Moore surpasses his model Charley’s War, which never really looked at the economic conditions that make the military an attractive career option, least of all tied that into its overall portrait of the horrors, both material and psychological, of war, and it is hardly surprising he considers Book Three the high point of The Ballad of Halo Jones.

Figure 816: "Nude Halo," by Ian
Gibson, 2013.
Book Three is also, however, the endpoint of The Ballad of Halo Jones. This was not the original plan; Moore and Gibson had at least some degree of an outline spanning nine books in total, although few details have emerged. Gibson has, in the thirty some-odd years since Book Three bowed, done a couple illustrations of Halo that have been speculated to reveal unused plot details, but these are not entirely reliable barometers: one suspects that his portrait of Halo as a scantily clad slave of some sort was not in keeping with Moore’s plans, and a nude illustration of her he did that was briefly to be sold as a print at the Bristol Comics Expo before hastily being withdrawn on the insistence of Rebellion (2000 AD’s latest owners) amidst some furious backpedaling on Gibson’s part about whether it was ever meant to be Halo (the convention certainly unambiguously sold it as such, and Gibson admits to naming the piece “nude Halo”) was, as Moore rather charitably put it, “quite the opposite of what the character was meant to be.” 

Moore, for his part, has suggested that Book Four would have involved Halo as “a female space pirate,” and that he intended to continue aging Halo through the books until, in the final book, she would be an old woman on “some planet that is right at the absolute edge of the universe where, beyond that, beyond some sort of spectacular lightshow, there is no space, no time.” Moore explains that “what would have happened is that Halo Jones, after spending some time with the rest of the immortals, would have tottered across the landing field, got into her spacecraft, and flown into the psychedelic lightshow, to finally get out.” The particulars, in any case, were never realized, and although Moore at the time of completing Book Three declined to rule out ever returning to the character, he has since hardened this position to an absolute refusal to work with 2000 AD’s owners, saying, in his most recent comments on the matter, that “I’ve cut me ties with all those things” and numbering Halo among the “comics work I am very very distanced from.” 

Figure 817: Alan Moore's final contribution to 2000 AD.
(From "Thargshead Revisited," in 2000 AD #500, 1986)
Despite this, it is not fair to say that Moore left IPC in a huff. Indeed, he returned thirty-four progs after the end of Book Three to do a one-page gag strip featuring Halo Jones for the magazine’s five hundredth issue, the last work he would end up doing for the company. A look at the dates offers a far more basic reason why he might not have hurried back to do The Ballad of Halo Jones Book Four: he didn’t have to. Two months after Book Three wrapped Watchmen started, and it quickly became clear that Moore was going to be making quite a lot of money off of it. (Indeed, the book would end up making Moore outright rich.) At every major step along the path of his ascension, Moore had taken the opportunity to downsize work where he found the pay to frustration ratio unsatisfying, and the start of Watchmen was no different - Moore ended Maxwell the Magic Cat around the same time, for instance. Simply put, Moore would surely have been asking himself about the merits of working for IPC rates even if he weren’t frustrated with the editorial experience on The Ballad of Halo Jones.

All the same, there was an ethical dimension to this. Watchmen wasn’t just better paying than 2000 AD work, it was, in his understanding at least, a creator-owned work on which he was given heavy editorial freedom. IPC, on the other hand, was an infamously conservative company with a poor track record in how its creative personnel was treated. Notably, their contracts gave no royalties for reprints, which meant that the collected editions of Moore’s comics - the format where Watchmen looked set to be an enduring source of income - gave him no royalties unless he wrote introductions for the volumes, which would get him a piddling 1%. This, combined with his frustrations with his editors, made it easy to understand why Book Four of Halo Jones was not a priority for Moore, not least because he was intending to move the story away from the editor-friendly war setting, a move that was surely going to provoke another flurry of editorial pressure to add more action sequences. 

Figure 818: Police attacking striking miners in what became known as
the Battle of Orgreave. (Photo by John Sturrock, 1984)
And indeed, this position rapidly hardened to an ethical redline for Moore. Moore’s position first became that he would not do more work on The Ballad of Halo Jones until he was given ownership of the property, and then, just to make sure his bluff wouldn’t be called, evolved into a refusal unless Judge Dredd were returned to Wagner, Mills, and Ezquerra, which was obviously never going to happen. This too is hardly surprising. Moore was well aware that his name sold books on its own merits, and IPC was profiting gamely on that fact without giving him any meaningful share of the money. This was flatly exploitative, and exploitative in a way that would have been acutely galling to Moore’s working class leftist sensibilities, especially as he looked out at a Britain where Thatcher had just a year earlier broken the back of the National Union of Mineworkers during a high profile strike. And this was hardly irrelevant to events at IPC. John Sanders, the head of the Youth Group at IPC when 2000 AD was started and later the managing director of IPC’s comics line, was virulently anti-union, complaining bitterly about “union’s smash and grab behavior” and praising Thatcher’s efforts to break the backs of unions. This sort of attitude would surely have been sickening to Moore, and once he had the financial security to not have to submit meekly to such exploitation he simply stopped doing so.

Figure 819: In hindsight, 2000 AD's treatment
of its writers as assembly line robots was not
quite the joke one might hope.
More surprising, perhaps, is why IPC (and, subsequently, Fleetway, who bought IPC’s comics division in 1987) didn’t make any significant effort to keep Moore on board. The reason is on the whole simple, however: that’s just not the sort of company IPC was. The idea of paying their creators more was completely alien to them. As Sanders put it, “we needed all rights because the Youth Group only made realistic profits by re-using material at no cost… my attitude was if you don’t want to work for us, there are plenty of other markets for you.” (This last claim sits at an odd juxtaposition with his claim, in the same interview, that “we had 50 per cent of the market, and [DC Thompson] had the other 50 per cent,” but then, when has the person explaining to an artist why they don’t deserve to be paid ever told the truth?) The reality, though was that the UK to US pipeline that DC was rapidly building was taking its toll on the magazine as major creator after major creator found their time occupied with American comics that paid more up front and offered royalties for reprints.

Figure 820: The start of Grant Morrison's first Future Shock. (From
"Hotel Harry Felix" in 2000 AD #463, 1986)
More broadly, IPC’s attitude was that it was 2000 AD and its associated characters that sold comics, not individual creators. This was perhaps obvious given that even providing credits for creators had been a fight (with, predictably, John Sanders being opposed), and when credits were provided creators were described as though they were interchangeable robots. The stars of 2000 AD were its fictitious editor Tharg the Mighty, Judge Dredd, Nemesis the Warlock, Rogue Trooper, Sam Slade, and the others - not the people who had created them. And so, perhaps unsurprisingly for a company whose modus operandi was to publish thinly veiled knockoffs of popular media, IPC’s attitude was largely that if Moore was going to be uppity, they’d just hire new people to write like Moore. And as luck would have it, they even had somebody on hand: Prog 463, in addition to featuring the twelfth installment of The Ballad of Halo Jones Book Three, featured the IPC debut of Grant Morrison on a Tharg’s Future Shock entitled “Hotel Harry Felix.” 

Figure 821: Grant Morrison's take on the love
between a man and an AI-enhanced machine, a
theme previously explored by Alan Moore. (Art
by Geoff Senior, from "Wheels of Fury" in 2000 AD
#481, 1986)
There is no way to reasonably deny the fact that Morrison’s short pieces for 2000 AD owe a heavy debt to Alan Moore. “Hotel Harry Felix,” features an alien life form that takes the form of thoughts and ideas, a concept Moore had already explored in “Eureka.” His second, “The Alteration,” is a two-pager featuring a man on the run who is caught by monsters and turns into one, only to have it turn out that he was actually a monster who had contracted “humanitis” and was being cured, a joke not entirely dissimilar to Moore’s two-page “Return of the Thing.” His fourth, “Some People Never Listen,” bears more than a passing resemblance to Moore’s “The Bounty Hunters.” His seventh, “Wheels of Fury,” featuring an AI car that turns into a jealous lover, is almost a straight reworking of the Moore/Gibbons “The Dating Game,” in which a city’s central computer becomes a jealous lover. “Fair Exchange” uses the same joke that concludes “D.R. and Quinch Have Fun on Earth” of a comedic misunderstanding in which an alien is presented with something that is secretly rude graffiti in its native language, while the two-part “Fruitcake and Veg” is a more or less straightforward repeat of the basic joke of D.R. & Quinch, including a section where the narrator reflects, “People say to me, ‘Mr. Sweet, what is it that makes yo commit senseless and irresponsible acts of wanton destruction? What made you become the deranged homicidal maniac we’ve come to know and love? Well it’s a fair question. So I always give them a fair answer. I say it’s my upbringing, I tell them society’s to blame… and then I blow ‘em up!” And the similarities continue right up to Morrison’s final Future Shock, “Big Trouble for Blast Barclay,” a Flash Gordon riff that echoes Moore’s “The Regrettable Ruse of Rocket Redglare,” and which even has the same artist, Mike White. All told, out of fifteen short pieces Morrison wrote for 2000 AD, around half have pronounced similarities with Moore’s work. [continued]

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Comics Reviews (July 1st, 2015)

Part One: Comics

From worst to best of what I voluntarily paid money for.

Secret Wars #4

It's not even that it's a bad comic. It's just that, well, at this point it's become impossible to read this comic as a separate phenomenon from the overall realignment of Marvel comics (see part two of this post). Here we have what is in effect a brutal rejection of an entire line of thought in Marvel comics that has been going for several years - the Cyclops-as-Revolutionary angle. The comic is explicitly configured to allow Cyclops's vision of fiery rebirth a moment in the sunlight and then to cut it down. Specifically in favor of a Reed vs Doom story. Although with the knowledge that both X-Men and Fantastic Four are being consciously downplayed within Marvel right now for broader corporate reasons, it's tough to see that as a promising dualism either.

The real problem, though, is that I've always wanted to root for the Cyclops-as-Revolutionary angle. I've always thought that challenge to what superhero narratives are was worth exploring seriously and allowing the possibility of moral validity. Hickman turns away from it very, very hard here. I reject that, aesthetically. It's not even that I think Cyclops is morally right. I think that's a functionally meaningless question within the melodramatic metaphysics of a superhero universe. It's that I think Cyclops is a vehicle for giving voice to perspectives superhero narratives don't usually get to explore, and that Hickman gave him depressingly short shrift here.

Yes, there's more issues and this may turn around. But this is a review of this specific issue. And given Secret Wars demands to be read as a meta-commentary on the state of Marvel Comics, I think what it's saying this month is rank fucking bullshit.

Grant Morrison's 18 Days #1

Honestly, I just think it's unfair to ask the world to offer any sort of critical judgment of this, and I'm half-inclined to say that I'm going to buy it and not review it. It's clearly not a major Grant Morrison project. And look, I don't begrudge him taking the money and running, which he's clearly done with this. But this book is a Kirby pastiche reworking of the Mahabharata with an artist who is not Jack Kirby. And a writer who is not Jack Kirby. It's pretty. It's competent. But what on Earth is one supposed to say of it? Morrison is in the backmatter comparing himself favorably to Lord of the Rings and Shakespeare. This issue doesn't stand up to either. But equally, it seems vital to note that the problem is not what the book is - a western comic based on Hindi mythology. The problem is that this is just a Kirby pastiche of novel subject matter.

Ultimate End #3

There's a shell game here, obviously. This book inherits its premise from other bits of Secret Wars. Not all of those bits are out yet. So the precise nature of Manhattan and of this mash-up of the 616 and Ultimate Universes is not yet revealed. I am interested in that question. The problem is, like Jason Aaron's Thor run, it's an intellectual problem, not a story.

Darth Vader #7

We switch to the good stuff for the week, I'm happy to say. Or, at least, what we might call the "good but didn't quite work for me" stretch of reviews. This is capable, interesting, and still a Star Wars comic that I'm buying purely for the fact that I enjoy watching the writer work. In this case he doesn't do anything that immediately grabs me, which is in no way a valid criticism.

Years of Future Past #2

A serviceable comic undermined by the fact that anything X-Men and Secret Wars related is aggressively ephemeral. That's not a problem of course; the demand that comics "matter" is a very silly one based on a misunderstanding of what comics are. The problem, I think, is that Bennett is too restrained as a writer. She's got loads of talent and style - the Colossus monologue page is a brilliant piece of style. She writes a brilliant Magneto. The final page reveal is a massive grin-inducer. But she has a post-apocalyptic team of mutants none of whom have to survive, and this book comes off as timid compared to its canvas.

Chew #50

I can tell that this is a well-structured issue. It's obvious that it's an interesting plot beat to throw at issue #50 of a sixty-issue series. It pays off a lot of stuff. It's clearly a good comic. And I am entirely aware that my problem with this issue is quite literally my problem - one unique to me, and a failing on my part as a reader. That said, it builds to a final page reveal that depends on my being able to identify a character who has no dialogue in this issue. And... I can't. I forget who the blonde woman in Chu's arms is. I don't remember her relationship with anyone. I'm sure she's done stuff in the book and is important, but... nope. Total blank. So the whole thing just sort of... deflates for me. Like I said, my fault. My failing. Still didn't work for me.

A-Force #2

It's interesting to basically watch a book be demoed on a setting other than its actual one. Which is to say, I like A-Force, the comic about female Avengers led by She-Hulk. I like the takes on the major characters. I like the choices of major characters. But this still falls slightly short for me. I think it's because, as an issue, it's kind of vacant. As with Years of Future Past, Bennett (and she would appear to be lead on this issue) doesn't really go for the sort of "and now for the big moment" revelry that the pop comics style she's a best fit for demands. There's no moment that feels like punching the air and saying "that's what I spent my money for." She's good. I think she can deliver some top drawer comics. But she needs to work on that aspect of her game.

The Wicked and the Divine #12

And now we shift to the great stuff. And this is great. Gillen handles the shift away from McKelvie well. Kate Brown is a good transitional artist for this, maintaining the book's basic visual grammar but introducing us to a spin on the premise. But this is a calm between the storms issue; Gillen is running out the clock, going down some side alleys and doing his worldbuilding. But it's an obvious bit of non-misdirection. He's flagging, in a variety of ways, that we're eventually going to circle back to Laura and, by extension, Lucifer. I mean, if nothing else, gee, it's funny how every god who's died so far is an underworld god. I WONDER WHAT THE AFTERLIFE IS LIKE.

Which works. There's a tension of an eventual reveal that infuses a side trip like "let's pay attention to Cass's old assistants for an issue" with a really compelling tension, especially as the larger "who's going to figure out what Ananke is actually up to first" game plays out in the background. As serialize drama, the moving parts are exquisitely put together.

Equally, and again this comes down to "we're judging issues here, not books," Gillen makes a Sandman analogy in the backmatter that's on point. This issue - maybe this arc, but certainly this issue - is one of those side trips like the dead boy detectives in Seasons of Mists or the entirety of World's End - a conscious step away from the main story. And the truth is... well, that's why Sandman works better in trade.

The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl #7

What can I say. Ryan North is funny. He has clever ideas. This book shows that off. There are many highlights, and I will not spoil it for anyone who hasn't read it. Oh, OK. Ratatoskr.

Uber #26

Sheer bravado. Uber's version of "Blackwater" or "The Watchers on the Walls," with an entire issue spent on a single battle. With twenty-five issues of buildup that have screamed loudly that this is not a book that offers a rosy view of war or history, the idea of a major battle testing a sympathetic character's technical capabilities is genuinely terrifying. Uber has taught us to fear, very much, for our main characters. And this issue trades on that, while maintaining an exquisite balance of personal character focus and sweeping historical scope. Small moments and big ones juxtapose. It's awful. It's ugly. It's intriguing. It's brilliant. Fucking hell, this book.

Part Two: The Marvel Previews

From best to worst, with a clear marker of where the stuff I'll buy ends.
  1. Karnak - Well, it'll only be six issues, but this is delightfully batshit.
  2. Ms. Marvel - "Crushed it" indeed.
  3. Spider-Man - Love me some Miles Morales. 
  4. A-Force - Wilson is an autobuy. Love the cast. 
  5. Ultimates - Galactus on a team book by Al Ewing, yes please. Also Miss America. All the yes.
  6. Invincible Iron Man - Bendis on Iron Man sounds a safe bet.
  7. All-New All Different Avengers - Great cast, Waid's a reasonably secure bet as a writer. 
  8. Uncanny Avengers - Have liked enough of what I've seen of Duggan to try this, but Deadpool is worrisome.
  9. New Avengers - Buying entirely because Ewing is an autobuy for at least a first issue, but nothing that grabs me here as such. Squirrel Girl's nice.
  10. Guardians of the Galaxy - Bendis is, ultimately, still an autobuy, although this has hardly been my favorite book of his. 
  11. Contest of Champions - Seems very silly, but I'll always give an Ewing book a shot, as I said, and very silly could be fun.
  12. Spider-Gwen - The abrupt pause in the series after #5 definitely screwed up momentum on this for me, not least because it wasn't a great issue, so this could end up being a jumping off point for me eventually, but it's not yet.
  13. Angela: Asgard's Assassin - As the above reviews suggest, Bennett isn't quite catching for me, but I kind of want to give her more chance, and I am already invested in the plot here. This is the lowest-ranked book to be a definite buy for #1.
  14. Spider-Woman - The premise grabs me, and I have a vague intention of giving Hopeless a try, as I don't think I gave him a fair shake previously, so this is the best bet of where that might happen.
  15. Howard the Duck - Have had enough recommendations for this that I mean to check out the first run. If that's good, will buy this too. 
  16. Sam Wilson, Captain America - Nick Spencer can be good, and I like the idea of a Sam/Steve schism. Give me more premise and we'll see.
  17. Daredevil - Soule is hit and miss, but he does do good lawyers, and the Daredevil/Gambit pair is intriguing.
  18. Web Warriors - Maybe, as I like some of the characters, but I'm pointedly trying to keep my pulls down, and this seems exactly the sort of book I can decide against.
  19. The Totally Awesome Hulk  - I don't know, who is the Hulk? I tend not to like questions like that, but the name charms me.
  20. Venom: Spaceknight - OK, those are not two words I expected to see together, and that raises an eyebrow at least. 
  21. Uncanny Inhumans - Probably not, as I haven't fallen in love with any of Soule's previous Inhumans work, but I'm not saying no.
  22. All-New Wolverine - OK, this doesn't grab me inherently, but mostly because I don't know who Taylor is. I like the art and the premise. The highest-ranked "maybe" for me - everything below this is a 0% chance of my buying it barring new information.
  23. Amazing Spider-Man - Haven't loved Slott's stuff post-Superior Spider-Man, and think this will be my exit from Spider-Man.
  24. Captain Marvel - I haven't gotten to Agent Carter episode two yet, and it's been months, so I don't think this team will win me back.
  25. All-New X-Men - Of the three X-Men books, this is the most promising, not least as I do mean to give Hopeless a try on something, as I said. But with the X-Men line on the whole looking droppable right now, this falls below the plausibility point.
  26. Extraordinary X-Men - Lemire and Ramos are both "not dealbreaker" sorts of creators, so this just sort of leaves me cold, but I do like the feel for an X-Men book. 
  27. Uncanny X-Men - Interesting premise, but I have no faith in either Bunn or Marvel tackling this sort of sinister X-book.
  28. Nova - Gutted to see that this does not feature the awesome Nova family from Infinity Gauntlet. 
  29. Doctor Strange - I don't think I like Jason Aaron's work.
  30. The Mighty Thor - Will be dropping this, as I just don't dig the angle.
  31. Hawkeye - I like the Clint vs Kate premise, but I've not been following post-Fraction Hawkeye, and this doesn't look set to grab me.
  32. Spider-Man 2099 - Glad people who like this have a book.
  33. Star-Lord - Haven't felt a hole in my life without a Star-Lord book before, don't imagine I'll start now.
  34. Old Man Logan - Not the Wolverine book I suspect I want.
  35. Ant-Man - Just sort of the purest distillation of "meh" for me.
  36. Silk - The character hasn't grabbed me yet, and the villainy tone of the solicit leaves me cold. 
  37. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. - I don't even like the television series.
  38. Drax - Can't see this working for me.
  39. Vision - Don't know the writer, no obvious hook in the premise, not a character that grabs me
  40. Illuminati - this looks utterly not like my thing. 
  41. Deadpool - I don't like Deadpool.
  42. Howling Commandos of S.H.I.E.L.D. - Cute premise, but this seems the embodiment of "cool idea but not a book I would enjoy." Low place mainly due to the appalling resolution of the art, I suspect.
  43. Scarlet Witch - Robinson does not currently interest me, especially not after this shitstorm.
  44. Squadron Supreme - Cannot imagine why I would buy this.
  45. Carnage - I loathe Conway's work. 

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

A Short Guide to Janelle Monáe and the Metropolis Saga

The June bonus post, as voted upon by my generous Patrons

A large amount of the critical discourse surrounding Janelle Monáe has focused on the question of why she hasn’t been more successful. I mean, sure, she’s got a major label record deal, is one of only a handful of black women to run her own record label, is one of the most critically acclaimed artists working, and is making a good living while making art according to her own vision and nobody else’s, but her best-performing album only hit #5 in the charts, so obviously she’s doing something wrong. And looking at her work and her career, I think I know what her problem is: she’s never had a white male science fiction fan whose only credentials for writing about music are having co-authored a book about They Might Be Giants write a detailed guide to her work.

An appalling oversight, to be sure, but one I’m only too happy to help correct.

The bulk of Monáe’s work consists of the five (and counting) part Metropolis Saga, released over two albums and an EP, and currently projected to run for seven parts, although it was previously slated as four parts. The suite focuses on the stories of Monáe’s alter-ego Cindi Mayweather, a time-traveling android.

Suite 0: The Audition

Monáe’s 2003 self-released album The Audition is not actually a part of the Metropolis Saga, but contains two songs that introduce the themes and concepts she would later explore in the Metropolis Saga: “Metropolis” and “Cindi.”

The first of these is interesting in that it serves as a concise and bespoke sketch of the Metropolis setting, describing a run down and oppressive city (“Population ten zillion and six”) from the perspective of a “cyber girl” living “on the wired side of town.” Most of the song is a liltingly wistful number about the unnamed narrator’s dreams of freedom, with a spoken word bridge about the prejudices faced by “wired folk” on the grounds that “we have no feelings no memories or minds.” Several major concepts that will be expanded on in the Metropolis Saga proper are introduced here, most notably the repressive Droid Control and the character of Anthony Greendown. 

The second is a two minute ballad that has no overt sci-fi trappings, instead being about the gulf between one’s dreams and one’s ordinary self, singing about “that girl in the mirror / with hair like a rock star / she wants to dance but she has cold feet/ her confidence is low / so much talent but who’ll know / when she’s afraid to follow her dreams.” But the lyrics make reference to trying “to be Cindi, in hopes that they’d notice,” a title drop that alludes to the robotic alter-ego she would eventually flesh out in detail. Crucial - indeed, as will eventually become clear, the entire point of the exercise - is the aspirational quality, one that’s implicit in the demo album’s title, The Audition. This is, in many ways, the eternal plot of the Metropolis Saga: Janelle Monáe’s continuing attempt to become Cindi Mayweather, a process that is indistinguishable from her continuing attempt to define what that means. 

Suite I: The Chase

Monáe finally made her breakthrough with a 2007 EP entitled Metropolis: Suite I (The Chase). These days it’s sold as either a seven track version (the Special Edition) featuring the songs “Mr. President” and “Smile,” or as an eleven track version (the Fantastic Edition) featuring some remixes, but the actual Suite I consists only of the first five tracks.

Of the five existent suites, the first is by some margin the most straightforwardly narrative, although by the end of the fifth track, “Sincerely, Jane,” the notion of what a narrative is within the context of the Metropolis Saga becomes complex, to say the least.

It starts simply enough, however, with “March of the Wolfmasters,” a spoken word piece in the form of an announcement that “Android No. 57821, otherwise known as Cindi Mayweather, has fallen desperately in love with a human named Anthony Greendown,” which means that bounty hunters are now free to hunt her (although the daily rules specify “no phasers, only chainsaws and electro-daggers”). This is followed by “Violet Stars Happy Hunting!”, which picks up straightforwardly from the perspective of Cindi as she goes on the run. (A highlight here: the way in which the lyrical description of the sirens melds into scat singing.) 

But it is the third track, “Many Moons,” that serves as the suite’s key song - a literal centerpiece that was the Grammy-nominated single and the track to get a music video. The video poses an interesting challenge for anyone trying to construct a linear narrative, in that it features Cindi Mayweather as a singing and dancing entertainer at the annual Metropolis Android Auction, a setting that cannot be reconciled with the ostensible plots of “March of the Wolfmasters” and “Violet Stars Happy Hunting!” 

\Lyrically, the song starts by continuing the theme of “Violet Stars Happy Hunting!”, describing an oppressive and degrading society (“all we ever wanted to say / was chased, erased, and then thrown away”). But after two verses the song pivots into a litany of short phrases. What’s interesting about these phrases, though, is that they don’t all seem to be part of the same conceptual space. Some are clearly part of the world of Metropolis (“cybergirl / droid control /get away now they trying to steal your soul”) while others seem to be part of the real world (“breast cancer / common cold / HIV / lost hope / overweight / self esteem / misfit / broken dream”). 

Following the recitation, the drums trail off from the song and another musical section begins, a slow and mournful lullaby that begins “and when the world just treats you wrong / just come with me and I’ll take you home.” In the video, this takes place as Cindi is suspended in the air, lightning crackling from her, with the song and video ending with Cindi falling to the ground, seemingly dead. But the lyrics of the section and the imagery complicate this. In the video, Cindi is one of several androids portrayed by Monáe, all of whom lip sync the lyrics in unison. As Cindi dies, the bulk of the lyrics are voiced by one of her alter-egos, Lady Maestra, Master of the Show Droids, whose veiled footwomen surround the dying Cindi as though to bear her away. Meanwhile, the lyrics, about how “ when the world just treats you wrong / just come with me and I’ll take you home” and how “the old man dies and then a baby’s born” suggest a theme of rebirth. 

Taken together with the varied litany that precedes it and the title (a phrase that does not appear in the lyrics itself, but does in the quote, attributed to Cindi, that closes the video, “I imagined Many Moons in the sky lighting the way to freedom”), there is a strong suggestion that the sort of freedom referenced throughout the song (“revolutionize your lives and find a way out,” as the chorus puts it) is one of escape into other worlds entirely. This is, in other words, where the “time travel” aspect of the Metropolis concept comes in. Monáe uses time travel not as a means of straightforwardly visiting other places and times, but rather to reconceptualize Cindi as a figure of eternal resistance. The many moons that Cindi imagines lighting her way to freedom, in other words, are simply other Cindis, some in worlds like Metropolis (hence the video, whose plot is seemingly incompatible with the album), some in other worlds entirely, most obviously that of the listener.

This makes the final two tracks of Suite I fairly straightforward. The first, “Cybertronic Purgatory,” depicts a captured Cindi (notably, a development not unlike that of the Cindi in the video’s death), whereas the second, the extremely solid “Sincerely, Jane,” clearly depicts the real world, as opposed to the stylized dystopia of Metropolis, with lyrics like “I've seen them shootin' up funerals in they Sunday clothes / spending money on spinners but won't pay college loans / and all you gangers and bangers rollin' dice and taking lives, in a smokey dark,” but nevertheless still reflecting the basic desires expressed by Cindi elsewhere on the album, namely to find some sort of freedom or escape, imaginative or otherwise, from the dystopia. Or, more simply, in “Cybertronic Purgatory” Cindi is captured and destroyed, but this only causes her to reincarnate in a new setting entirely.

The sort of science fiction in play, in other words, is one in the New Wave tradition of endless redefinition - something akin to Moorcock’s Eternal Champion mythos, perhaps. It is a mythology of transformation, as suggested in the Seventh Droid Commandment distributed at Monáe’s live shows, which lists various inspirations including Octavia Butler, David Bowie, and Andy Warhol. Or, for that matter, as suggested in the aggressively transhumanist Tenth Droid Commandment, which warns that “children conceived during the show or within 48 hours thereafter may be born with wings.”

Suite II: The ArchAndroid Tracks 1-11

Monáe’s proper album debut, The ArchAndroid came in 2010, and offered the second and third suites of what was still projected to be a four-part sequence. Its nominal plot concerns Cindi’s realization that she is the messianic figure of the ArchAndroid, whose return to Metropolis (conceptualized here, apparently, as not just having androids but “elves and dwarves” and “clones and aliens”) will free the city from the Great Divide, “a secret society which has been using time travel to suppress freedom and love throughout the ages,” and that is suggested to be tied to the American government. 

In one sense, Suites II and III can be divided with a sort of ruthless pragmatism - Suite II is where the singles are, whereas Suite III is more esoteric and experimental stuff. This isn’t quite fair, in that Suite II has a few distinct oddities, while Suite III has one of the album’s catchiest numbers, but it generally works. Suite II opens with an instrumental piece in the style of a film score, giving proceedings an epic and cinematic heft, before segueing into the first proper song, “Dance or Die.”

The song opens in a tacit callback to “Many Moons” (one of two in Suite II, with track eight, “Neon Gumbo,” being the post-chant portion of “Many Moons” played backwards), with a recitation: “Cyborg, android, d-boy, decoy, water, wisdom, tightrope, vision, insight, stronghold, heartless, ice cold, mystery, mastery, solar, battery.” But the vocal is not Monáe’s; rather, it’s guest artist Saul Williams, the acclaimed rapper and slam poet. This has a couple of effects. First, it interpolates Williams’s aesthetic into Monáe’s, giving a sense of revolutionary swagger to proceedings. Second, and not unrelatedly, it creates a sense of distance from Monáe herself.

It’s telling, then, that “Dance or Die” is the furthest from any sort of confessional mode that the Metropolis Saga has been since the opening “March of the Wolfmasters.” The first verse contains no first person pronouns whatsoever, in contrast with all of “Violet Stars Happy Hunting!”, “Many Moons,” and “Sincerely, Jane,” all of which invoke the first person in their first lines. More to the point, however, the “I” of the song is pointedly distant from Cindi. The chorus, where first person pronouns make their first appearance, is clearly about Cindi, as opposed to by Cindi: “a long long way to find the one / we’ll keep on dancing til she comes / these dreams are forever / oh these dreams are forever / and if you wanna wake the sun / just keep on marching to the drums / these dreams are forever / oh these dreams are forever.” (The phrase “wake the sun” is also notable, in that it tacitly invokes Sun Ra, tying the figure of the ArchAndroid into a much larger tradition of afrofuturism and utopianism.)

“Dance or Die” also develops the specifics of Monáe’s vision of resistance and revolution, with dancing not just serving as a means of waiting for the ArchAndroid, but as an explicit form of resistance and, more to the point, of survival in a fallen and degrading world. (“It’s still a war in all the streets and yes freaks will dance or die.”) This theme carries through the next three tracks, “Faster,” “Locked Inside,” and “Sir Greendown,” each of which return to a straightforwardly confessional mode and depict a their narrators in positions of captivity and longing for some form of release. 

These three tracks serve as the lead-in to Suite II’s centerpiece, the double-header of “Cold War” and “Tightrope,” which also served as the album’s two singles. Both are upbeat, anthemic numbers with choruses primarily in the second person, a fact emphasized by the video for “Cold War,” which is a straightforward close-up of Monáe lip syncing the song to camera. The two songs also have relatively similar themes, focusing on the act of resistance and rebellion as primarily an internal one. “Cold War,” for instance, proclaims that “if you want to be free / below the ground’s the only place to be” and that “I’m trying to find my peace / I was made to believe there’s something wrong with me” in amidst the chorus’s repeated declaration that “this is a cold war / you better know what you’re fighting for.” Indeed, the basic image of the title is in this regard telling; when last the direct imagery of war appeared it was in “Dance or Die,” where the war was an overt one that seemed in turn to harken back to “Sincerely Jane” in its depiction of the often cruel realities of urban life. (“Ghettos keep a crying out to streets full of zombies / kids are killing kids and then the kids join the army.”) Here, however, the war has become a cold war, free of literal violence, where the primary stakes are the maintenance of your own identity.

“Tightrope,” meanwhile, is the album’s main single, a rolicking number about maintaining balance and perspective in life and not getting “too high” or “too low” as you “tip on the tightrope” in life. It’s also the only track to get a substantive video (as opposed to the zero-budget one for “Cold War”). Interestingly, the video is not set in Metropolis. Nor, however, is it straightforwardly set in the present day. It takes place in the Palace of the Dogs, which is described as an asylum where “dancing has long been forbidden for its subversive effects on the residents and its tendency to lead to illegal magical practices.” The Palace is expanded on in the text piece that opens liner notes to The ArchAndroid (a sort of afrofuturist piece of weird fiction that also contains the astonishing statement “I am convinced now that 1954 is not just a year - it is an army”), which explain that that Monáe herself is imprisoned in the asylum. In this telling of the Metropolis mythos, Monáe is originally from the year 2719, where she was kidnapped, had her genetic code stolen and used to create Cindi Mayweather, and was then sent back in time. (The piece also has the helpful observation that “most of the story does not bear logical sense,” a useful guide in trying to parse it.)

This refocusing on resistance as an internal mental practice carries over in the final stretch of Suite II, which, after the palate cleansing “Neon Gumbo,” consists of “Oh, Maker,” “Come Alive (War of the Roses),” and “Mushrooms & Roses.” Like the stretch from “Faster” to “Sir Greendown,” all three are in the confessional mode, foregrounding Monáe (or her character) in the lyrics. But where “Faster,” “Locked Inside,” and “Sir Greendown” presented Monáe struggling for escape, these three present characters who have taken the lessons of “Cold War” and “Tightrope” to heart and found internal lives offering some measure of freedom.

The first, “Oh, Maker,” is a Simon and Garfunkel riff, interpolating the guitar line of “Sounds of Silence” and nicking the first line of “Kathy’s Song” for a mournful ballad from Cindi to her vision of God, which, sensibly for an android, is instead the Maker. The second, “Come Alive (War of the Roses),” is a full-throated embrace of strangeness and madness (and indeed, one of the few Monáe numbers that one could mount a decent social justice critique of). And “Mushrooms & Roses” closes out proceedings with a languid and distortion-heavy paen to the freedom of the eponymous club, “where all the lonely droids and lovers have their wildest dreams.” The song is also notable for the first mention of Mary, a cryptically defined figure of attraction within the Metropolis Saga, described here as “crazy about me / she’s wild man, she’s wild / she gives the boys all of her kisses and electricity / the golden door of their emotions opens wide / here they fall into her love and never have to hide.”

Suite III: The ArchAndroid Tracks 12-18

Despite being seven tracks long to Suite II’s eleven, Suite III is only about seven minutes shorter, a fact that is somewhat revealing about its content, which includes the two longest songs on the album, the six minute “Say You’ll Go” and the nearly nine minute “Babopbye Ya.” It is the half of the album that is less concerned with pop hooks, and more inclined towards the experimental. Thematically, it is thoroughly disjointed, and indeed, can fairly be criticized for losing focus compared to the Suite II, which, on its own, would form a ruthlessly tight pop EP.

To some extent, this disjoint is the point; much of this suite trades on the considerable stylistic differences among tracks, jumping from a crooned R&B love song to what’s basically an Of Montreal song (the only song on the album for which Monáe does not have a writing credit) to the jaunty synths of “Wondaland” to haunting folk to a ballad to the multi-part epic of “Babopbye Ya.” Certainly at no point has Monáe’s music sounded unduly repetitive, and there are individual transitions in Suite II just as radical (most obviously “Sir Greendown” to “Cold War” and “Oh, Maker” to “Come Alive (War of the Roses)”), but the sheer breadth of styles here is striking.

The standout track of Suite III, and indeed one of the high points of The ArchAndroid in general is “Wondaland,” a ruthlessly catchy piece of synth-funk that combines the psychedelia of lines like “Dance in the trees / paint mysteries / the magnificent droid plays there / your magic mind / makes love to mine” and “the grass grows inside / the music floats you gently on your toes / touch the nose, he’ll change our clothes to tuxedos” and the wonderfully silly chorus of “Take me back to Wondaland / I gotta get back to Wondaland / Take me back to Wondaland / She thinks she left her underpants.” It’s a masterpiece, and would have made a fine third single. 

Suite III is also notable for containing the last mentions of Anthony Greendown in the Metropolis Saga to date, both in the overture, which interpolates bits of “Sir Greendown,” and at the end of “57821,” where he comes up twice, and, more broadly, where the song is clearly about him, beginning with a description of how “Early each morning he searched for her / til his feet become bloody and tired.” It’s fitting that this should happen immediately after the introduction of Mary, marking a clear transition in the focus of the Metropolis Saga.

And although Greendown is only explicitly mentioned in two songs, his presence hangs over much of Suite III, which has a recurring theme of distance and departure. “Neon Valley Street,” for instance, repeats the line “may this song reach your heart” throughout, alongside many other lines about communicating over distance. “Say You’ll Go” is downright literal about this theme. And “Babopbye Ya” (and thus Suite III and The ArchAndroid) ends with the line “my freedom calls and I must go.” The overall sense, in other words, is of moving on, suggesting that Cindi’s ascension to the role of ArchAndroid must also be understood as a turn away from the life depicted back in Suite I and towards an altogether broader perspective.

Suite IV: The Electric Lady Tracks 1-10

Monáe’s second album, The Electric Lady, is a structurally more complex beast, divided not just into its two suites, but into four sections split up by a trio of interludes in the form of a bantering radio DJ on WDRD fielding calls from eccentric listeners. Notably, these divisions do not coincide with the suites - they come on tracks 5, 8, and 14. 

The Electric Lady is also somewhat complex in terms of how it fits with the rest of the Metropolis Saga. It marks the point where Monáe decided to extend the series from its original four parts to seven, and Monáe has suggested that it is in fact a prequel to The Chase, as she wasn’t sure how she wanted to end the cycle yet. This makes some narrative sense, offering a plot-related reason for the absence of Anthony Greendown from this album (though he does get a mention in the liner notes), but given that Mary makes multiple appearances in the lyrics is not quite as straightforward as it might appear, not least because the album marks a decisive move forward in Monáe’s songwriting and production such that it is conceptually difficult to treat it as an earlier, less mature version of her central character.

The Electric Lady does, however, share The ArchAndroid’s basic structure of a first suite composed of the hits and a second suite of less overtly commercial material. In fact, Suite IV is basically a wall-to-wall run of potential hits - of its seven proper songs, four were singles, and two more easily could have been. It’s a swaggering, confident run of songs that can easily be read as embodying Cindi’s revolutionary potential. This is made clear from the opening overture of the Suite, described in the liner notes as “inspired by the idea of Ennio Morricone playing cards with Duke Ellington,” and opening with a majestic crescendo to the triumphant line, “she has arrived!”

The effect continues ruthlessly in the next track, which opens as a guitar line that sounds like it comes from a lost Prince song as Monáe spits out her initial burst of braggadoccio: “I am sharper than a razor / eyes made of lasers / bolder than the truth.” And then, ninety seconds in, the song pulls off the ultimate moment of bravado as it goes from being a Prince homage to actually having Prince drop in for a verse. (A moment that also explains why the guitar line sounded like such a dead-on Prince homage.) 

Monáe follows this with the album’s first single, “Q.U.E.E.N.,” a manifesto of defiance that opens, “I can’t believe all of the things they say about me / walk in the room they throwing shade left to right,” but that eventually focuses on mundane and everyday judgments, as Monáe asks things like “is it peculiar that she twerk in the mirror / and am I weird to dance alone late at night?” and “is it weird to like the way she wear her tights?” (The song also includes the Metropolis Saga’s second reference to Mary: “am I a freak because I love watching Mary?”) Eventually it concludes that “even if it makes others uncomfortable, I will love who I am” and segues into a bridge from Erykah Badu that culminates in the observation that “the booty don’t lie.”

The accompanying video posits Monáe and the rest of the Wondaland Arts Society as famous rebels from history who have been captured in suspended animation by the oppressive future regime of Metropolis, but who are broken out by a bunch of rebels armed only with a record containing the single (described in the voiceover as “a musical weapons project,” and as a freedom movement disguised as a song), firmly making the connection between this sort of uncompromising self-esteem and revolutionary possibility, a link highlighted by the song’s finish, a rap breakdown from Monáe long on classic braggadocio (“my crown too heavy like the Queen Nefertiti / gimme back my pyramid, I’m trying to free Kansas City”) and culminating in the question, “electric ladies, will you sleep, or will you preach?”

The song then makes a smash transition into the title track, the album’s fourth single, a lengthy description of Cindi praising “all the birds and the bees / dancing with the freaks in the trees” and describing how “once you see her face, her eyes you’ll remember / and she’ll have you fallin’ harder than a Sunday in September.” It’s worth noting that this marks a significant transition in the depiction of Cindi, however - it’s the first time in the Metropolis Saga that she’s been depicted as a sexual figure. This is a carefully curated sexuality, compared to “a modern day Joan of a Arc or Mia Farrow / classy, sassy, put you in a razzle-dazzy,” but it’s nevertheless made a defining aspect of her character for the first time.

Also interesting is the video, which sees Monáe cast as a member of the Electric Phi Betas, a present-day sorority (which her mother mishears as “Electrified Ladies,” eliciting an absolutely charming eyeroll from Monáe), whose party the video spends most of its time depicting, a further elucidation of the idea that CIndi Mayweather’s revolution extends out from the imagined future of Metropolis to countless places and times.

This flurry of three bombastic songs is followed by the first of the interludes, which, is used to cheekily work through debates within the black community about appropriate expressions of resistance and anger, contrasting two callers. The first is a woman who boasts about how “Droid Control can kiss the rust of the left and right cheek of my black metal ass” and how she’s going out tonight to “break some rules in honor of Cindi.” This caller meets with approval, with DJ Crash Crash asking her what rules, and responding to her suggestive answer that “we’re going to break all of them. We’re going to start at the top, and we gonna work our way down” by saying “I wanna work my way down with you.” The second, on the other hand, is “Ninja Bat Leeroy,” who angrily proclaims that “I’m tired of all these folks messing with us droids, kicking us all up in the head and wonder why we don’t think straight,” and proclaiming that they’re gooing to go out and “hit somebody in the head,” leading DJ Crash Crash to cut him off and proclaim that this is “rusty-dusty nano-thinking nonsense” and proclaiming that “we’re tired of fires, quiet no riots, we are jamming, dancing, and loving. Don’t throw no rock, don’t break no glass, just shake your ass.”

The interlude sets up a transition to a pair of songs with markedly different tones. The first, “PrimeTime,” is a sultry duet between Monáe and guest star Miguel, in which they proclaim that “it’s primetime for our love.” This served as the album’s third single, with a video that returns to Metropolis itself for the first time since the “Many Moons” video, taking place at the Electric Sheep Nightclub, a bar featuring seductively dancing androids. The video fits neatly with Monáe’s declaration of the album as a prequel (as do the interludes, which fit with The Chase’s description of Cindi as “the leading voice of a rebellious new form of pop music known as cybersoul”), depicting Cindi as a waitress at the nightclub flirting with a patron, Joey Vice, played by Miguel, and finally storming out of the club after she’s harassed by a patron, culminating in a rooftop meeting with Joey Vice, who takes her to an underground club and subsequently to his apartment, where there are drinks, Chinese food, and seductive looks. The second, “We Were Rock n’ Roll,” is an enthusiastic reminiscence of an old love affair, with a rolicking chorus that “we were unbreakable / we were like Rock ‘n Roll / we were like a king and queen / I want you to know.” (Note the sly effect of the final line; it contextualizes all the bravado of the first three into an attempt to communicate that bravado to the other part of the song’s “we,” a paradox embodied by the use of the past tense for the adjective “unbreakable.” Pop-confessionalism at its finest.) 

These are followed by a second interlude, seeing DJ Crash Crash at an android version of the classic black barbershop promoting that night’s End of the World Cyber Freak Festival and then introducing the next song, explicitly positioned as one of Cindi Mayweather’s songs, the album’s second single, “Dance Apocalyptic,” which largely does what it says on the tin, which is to say, provides a ludicrously catchy number about dancing in the face of armageddon. The video proclaims it the “Dawn of the Dance Apocalypse,” and features a melange of imagery with Monáe vamping decadently in a TV studio (the setting would appear to be roughly contemporary, although the announcer, portrayed by Jidenna, one of Monáe’s emerging proteges, featured prominently on her 2015 Eephus EP), introduces her as the Electric Lady, before eventually cutting to breaking news of a variety of apocalypses (fires in New York, locusts in Detroit, an earthquake in Miami, and, of course, zombies in Atlanta, who attack Monáe, portraying the newscaster, as the image blurs to static and a variety of strange and alien creatures) before cutting back to Monáe’s earlier performance, which ends with her and her band smashing their instruments and riding off with a suddenly appearing motorcycle gang called the Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Like you do.

Its juxtaposition of idiosyncrasy and emphasis, however, is worth remarking on. It is both the second single off the album (and, like “Q.U.E.E.N.,” a pre-release single) and diegetically declared to be Cindi Mayweather’s single. And yet it is an aggressively straightforward song. The apocalypse is seemingly non-metaphoric; certainly it’s not in the video. And yet it is also undefined; there are apparently some zombies, but Monáe has used the image metaphorically before, and so ironically, the one major apocalyptic signifier is incapable of defining the apocalypse. Unlike the sonically adjacent “Tightrope” from the previous album, it is not a moralistic song; its sole injunction is to dance. It fits within the larger ethos of self-actualization as revolutionary liberation preached elsewhere on the album and in the Metropolis Saga at large, but only endorses them incidentally. It serves, in other words almost as the archetype of Suite IV; it is a pop song, defined almost purely by its ability to stand out from everything around it. 

The suite ends with the only one of its songs that wouldn’t really have worked as a single, “Look Into My Eyes,” a brief number inviting the listener to be hypnotized by the singer and made into “a perfect work of art,” a return to the seductive imagery of the title track, but now turned into something altogether more chilling and unsettling. And yet the song’s basic promise remains optimistic: “we’ll both watch the sun kiss the sea,” Monáe sings at one point, and ends the song with a plea, “may our love be so brave and so true.” The iconography of a dark turn, in other words, without the actual turn. 

Suite V: The Electric Lady Tracks 11-19

As with The ArchAndroid, the back half of the album is used for comparatively less commercial songs. In this case, that largely involves slowing things down with what’s mostly a series of ballads and love songs in a self-consciously classic R&B style. Its opening is a silky instrumental interpolation of “Look Into My Eyes” that echoes the cinematic feel of Suite IV’s overture that, around the one minute mark, turns into an upbeat jazz take on “Dance Apocalyptic.” 

The suite is divided into a pair of songs - “It’s Code” and “Ghetto Woman” - and a quintet - “Victory,” “Can’t Live WIthout Your Love,” “Sally Ride,” “Dorothy Dandridge Eyes,” and “What an Experience” - by its lone interlude, “Our Favorite Fugitive. The first is an odd song, and sets a correspodningly odd tone for the Suite. Its title does not actually appear within the lyrics, but a near-match for it does in the chorus, which begins “Oh baby it’s cold / I want you to hold me.” The relative banality of this line matches the song’s lyrics, an unflashy piece of confessionalism about a woman grappling with the realization that her self-conscious distance from a would-be lover has pushed them into the arms of another woman, elevated only by some choice turns of phrase: “love’ll be your curse or a restless friend,” for instance, or the particular detail of the lament “I’ve been hurt / I need a glass of Merlot Blanc.” (An essentially non-existent drink; the grape exists, but is scarcely planted and used almost exclusively in blends.) 

The pun of the title, however, forces a complex reading on a song that is self-consciously resistant to sustaining it. It demands that the listener read a seemingly self-explanatory song lacking in any hidden meaning as “code.” But this paradox, upon inspection, proves to be even larger. Much of the Metropolis Saga, after all, has demanded that we read things as code, taking the oppression of androids in Monáe’s imagined future as a metaphor for present-day oppressions. Indeed, The Chase can be read as a straightforward act of encoding - a tutorial in the proper usage of Monáe’s sci-fi metaphor. But “It’s Code” contains none of these signifiers. Indeed, with the exception of its interlude, about which more in a moment, there are no sci-fi signifiers anywhere in Suite V. Instead we are asked to read the ordinary and everyday as a series of metaphors for an imagined future.

The other song of the first pair is “Ghetto Woman,” the album’s most aggressively non-sci-fi piece. The title is bluntly material, with a real-world connection unseen since “Sincerely, Jane” back on The Chase. It is a hymn to a particular archetype of black femininity, one firmly rooted in urban poverty. But the word “hymn” in many ways sells it short - Monáe is aggressively trying to center this decidedly unflashy vision of black womanhood as a near-platonic ideal, proclaiming her to be “the seventh wonder reigning over us at night” and proclaiming her to be “built to last through any weather.” Revealingly, the song culminates in a soaring rap sequence that’s overtly autobiographical for Monáe, describing her relationship with her own mother and including the lyric “before the tuxedos and black and white every day / used to watch my momma get down on her knees and pray / she’s the reason that I’m even writing this song,” a musical rendition of a frequent refrain in interviews regarding Monáe’s preference for the tuxedo as a desire for a form of uniform like her mother’s janitor uniform, to root her musical work in her working class upbringing.

These two songs are followed by “Our Favorite Fugitive,” the Suite’s one grounding in the Metropolis mythos. As with “Good Morning Midnight” in Suite IV, it features DJ Crash Crash dealing with various callers. Unlike “Good Morning Midnight,” however, where the callers exist to work through a debate within black culture, “Our Favorite Fugitive” deals with a trio viewpoints that are distinctly positioned as outside the oppressed android culture. Two of these viewpoints are straightforward parodies - the first caller, Peggy Lakeshore, who simply calls to declare that she’s “disappointed” and “disgusted” by “people like that” (i.e. Cindi Mayweather), having no objection beyond the fact that “she’s not even a person; she’s a droid.” (DJ Crash Crash accepts the declaration as fact and hangs up on her politely.) The third, meanwhile, simply shouts “robot love is queer” with no further elucidation, to which DJ Crash Crash responds by noting “what I wanna know is how you would know it’s queer… if you haven’t tried it.”

But between these is a caller named Josh. Josh is an interesting figure - he goes out of his way to greet DJ Crash Crash with his catchphrase, “power up,” but his voice tangibly lacks confidence. He mentions that he’s a college student, and notes, “I’ve been following you and cyber-soul and the whole droid underground for a while now,” both of which serve to establish a sense of distance from the community represented by the androids. And his speech is almost obnoxiously hesitant, awkwardly qualifying itself as he asks “You know, if you guys, in android community truly believe that Cindi Mayweather is not just like the Electric Lady Number One and all, but like also the ArchAndroid? Because of course in the book of…” But more interesting is DJ Crash Crash’s response which is to hurriedly cut him off with a “no, no, not on my show” and hang up on him, an apparent rejection of the messianic vision of the previous album. That this should take place in Suite V’s sole engagement with the larger Metropolis mythology is striking.

The final five songs of suite and album continue in the vein of overtly classic R&B numbers set up by the opening two. The first two, “Victory” and “Can’t Live Without Your Love” are straightforward. “Victory” is didactic: “to be victorious you must find glory in the little things.” “Can’t Live Without Your Love” is a sultry confessional, flirtatiously trying to stave off a breakup: “baby don’t you know I can’t live without your love.” 

The final three, however, are each fascinating in their own ways. The first, “Sally Ride,” marks a return to the symbolic, and tacitly interpolates the sci-fi imagery of the rest of the Metropolis Saga by invoking Sally Ride, the first American woman in space, who died in 2012 during The Electric Lady’s production and posthumously came out as having been in a same-sex relationship. Fittingly, the song also marks the return of Mary, with its repeated refrain, “wake up Mary, have you heard the news / you got to wake up Mary, you got the right to choose.” 

The second, “Dorothy Dandridge Eyes,” also tacitly interpolates the earlier sci-fi imagery, returning to the image of hypnosis from “Look Into My Eyes,” but this time positioning the hypnotic eyes in a historical tradition of black female sexuality via the reference to Dorothy Dandridge, the first black actress to get a nomination for Best Actress at the Oscars. 

And then there is “What An Experience,” the album’s closer, and the final part of the Metropolis Saga to date. The song trades on a central irony - its chorus is invested in the presence, asking over and over again “can you feel it” and proclaiming “I can really feel it.” But the title, also repeated in the chorus, is fundamentally reflective and backward looking, a tone highlighted by the fact that it is the album-closer, and thus an ending. This dualism is highlighted in one of the verses, which notes that “the world’s just made to fade / and all the parties someday blow away / but the memories come home / it’s funny how they come back with a song.”

And yet the main tone of the song is one of immediacy, a sense highlighted by the fact that it contains the most sexually explicit moment of the Metropolis Saga when, in amidst tame pleasantries like “you know when you touch my heart / I can really, really feel it” the line “baby when I touch your cock / can you really, really feel it” appears. The experience is also repeatedly compared to wine, the lover described as “buzzing my mind.” It is, in other words, the sense of hypnotic intoxication of “Look Into My Eyes” and “Dorothy Dandridge Eyes” (and one of the song’s final lines is indeed “look into my eyes”), a sense of overwhelming and immediate experience.

Which is, of course, what it’s always been about, even from before the start. Cindi Mayweather has always been about becoming - a transformation from dystopia to utopia that is always happening and thus never fully realized. As Monáe says to her alterego in the album’s liner notes, “see you where I always see you, in the future.”